Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Gender and Culture

A few weeks ago, Carol asked us to respond to a question about the distinctions between gender and culture. I know that Anthony and I both found it very difficult to come up with an answer to this question, even an incomplete answer. Before I answer that question, I need to sort out what is meant by gender and what is meant by culture.

When I first started thinking about gender, I thought of some experiences that my parents and grandparents have shared with me. I believe that these stories show what gender is - that it is a construct, an idea, a generalization of what women are supposed to be and do and what men are supposed to be and do.

When my parents moved to our current house in Rhode Island, they moved across the street from a family of four boys, the youngest of whom was named Evan, age 2. Their father was a very “macho” kind of guy and their mother did all the housekeeping and child-caring. My parents got to know Evan as he grew up and he would wander over at various times having escaped his hectic household without his parents knowledge. One day in the middle of summer when Evan was 5, he wandered over and found my mom building a lawn mower in the driveway. He thought this was very odd and asked, “Where's Ernie?” as if my mother must only have been building a lawn mower if my father was doing something even more important or macho. My mother replied, “He's inside baking a cake!” Evan could not believe this and shook his head incredulously, traipsed into our kitchen, and saw that my father was in fact, baking a cake. After that episode, my parents never saw Evan again. I guess he thought that the family across the street was too strange. A year later, Evan and his family moved out. I'm not sure if it's directly related to my parents' "strangeness," but it sure is a funny coincidence.

When my grandfather was little, growing up in France, he thought that French was the man's language and English was the woman's language because his father was French and his mother, American and they both spoke their respective native languages at home.

Both of these anecdotes show that even at such a young age, children can already have notions of what women are “supposed to do” and what men are “supposed to do.” And though many women may bake cakes, there are many men who bake cakes. Though there are many men who put lawn mowers together, there are also many women who put lawn mowers together! And I would bet that about 50% of the French-speaking population are women and 50% are men and the same with the English-speaking population. And that is what gender is: generalizations about what women do and how they act, and generalizations about what men do and how they act.

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